Friday, May 3, 2019

Strengthening Paired Associate Memory with Song

We are continuing our series of posts by Beth Guadagni, who shares the strategies she uses teaching her students with dyslexia in Colorado. 

Like many students, mine have struggled to learn their math facts. Automaticity with the multiplication tables is essential for math far beyond simply multiplying numbers; students use multiplication when working with fractions, doing long division, calculating area and volume, and in so many other applications that it seems rather silly to try to list them!

Perhaps most importantly: students need to have a sense of multiplication to determine whether a solution to a math problem makes sense. As Dr. Yellin will tell you, memorizing math facts involves a particular part of memory called paired-associate memory. Paired associate memory involves linking and storing two related data bits, retrieving one piece of information when presented with the other piece (eg., a sound with a symbol, or the number 28 when presented with 4x7).

Paired-associate memory is what we use when we learn someone’s name, remember that the color of the sky is called “blue,” pair the /ch/ sound with a "c" and an "h" together, etc. There’s no immediate context for these associations (although savvy students and educators can invent contexts to make information “make sense”); they just have to be memorized. Paired-associate memory is generally not a strength for dyslexic students, like mine, although people who don’t have dyslexia may struggle with this skill as well.

I learned skip-counting songs from a colleague and was amazed by the ease with which her fifth graders learned the number sequences. I was eager to try this concept in my class, but I was a bit apprehensive, too. Would my high school students be willing to sing strings of numbers to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The Wheels on the Bus”? The answer was a resounding “yes!” Although they were a little hesitant at first, my students were as pleased as I was that they could commit number sequences to memory with only a little practice. In fact (and this is true), one day one of my students, frowning darkly, exploded, “I’m really mad that I made it to eleventh grade before anyone taught me this!”

I’m going to spread the sequences over a few posts, which also is what one should do when teaching these songs. I’ll share a game for practicing math facts in each post, too. Learning the songs is important, but it’s not enough; one has to practice using the sequences to answer actual math facts, too. We'll present detailed instructions on how to use this technique in your classroom in our next post, but you can get a sense of how this process sounds from this YouTube video, posted by another teacher who used this technique. 

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